How can open data help democracy?

This post was originally published on The Democratic Society website.

It’s always good to read about open data and democracy in a mainstream newspaper , but often the focus of the pieces are too narrow, and it was in this case. While exploring broadly the idea of apps for democracy and open data, the focus was on voting as the main means of democratic engagement, without exploring how else citizens can engage in politics or policy making, and the article didn’t touch upon how to help citizens understand and use the data that is being made openly available.

At the Democratic Society, we believe that people should be engaged meaningfully in decision making more substantially than through the exercising of the right to vote taking place once every five years. While voting is a crucial part of a representative democracy, it is not the end of democratic engagement. Once elected, governments should be actively listening to, and working with, citizens, to develop policies and services.

The reasons for this go beyond just a democratic imperative – although this is obviously important – to the fact that it provides opportunity for public officials to tap into the collective expertise of the public; gaining insight to which they would not otherwise have access.

There are a range of activities that local and national governments carry out to listen to, and engage with, citizens. These range from the standard consultation model – in which a government department or body releases a survey, asking a set of questions around a set of proposals for either a policy or service – through to much more hands on approaches, like participatory budgeting. In addition, there are many other methods and approaches described in the open policy making manual.

If governments want to move away from the criticisms often levelled at consultation and engagement exercises – one of which is that consultations are often carried out as a tick box exercise, rather than a genuine attempt at hearing from the public – they could do far worse than consider how to ensure that consultation and engagement attempts are genuinely informed by relevant data, which is released under an open license, and presented in a way that allows citizens to explore it and understand it.

We are seeing an ever increasing number of government data sets being released openly – as any quick look at will tell you. And this release of open government data is often held up as a public good, and as a democratic good. The evidential narrative being that this open data allows people to hold governments to account, and to better understand what government is doing.

However, what this narrative fails to address is that the vast majority of people don’t know how to use the data that is released, don’t know that this data is being released, and either wouldn’t have the time or inclination to use this data. This means that the main beneficiaries of open data are those individuals, journalists, and companies who have significant data skills – which is not the vast majority of citizens.

This evidential narrative also fails to address that the fact that the data sets being released are those which government choses to release; either because they are comparatively easy to release, there are existing business cases to justify the cost of organising and releasing the data, or as a result of lobbying from the open data community or big organisations. While there are mechanisms  that exist for individuals to request data sets be made openly available, these routes do not seem well known to many who would benefit from using public open data.

So how can we make open data more useful and valuable for actual citizens?

One thing that would be really transformational would be for the change we are seeing around increasing citizen participation and engagement in policy making, to be combined with the open data movement.

As local and national governments engage or consult citizens on policy proposals or changes to service delivery, I’d like to see like to see these bodies releasing open data sets relevant to the issues or services they are consulting upon. And I’d like to see opportunities to be made available for citizens to explore the data that don’t require them to have technological skills, or to know much about open data full stop.

At a local government level, this may include releasing the number of times a bridge is used by pedestrians and bicycles at various times over the course of a day, when consulting about whether access to a bridge should be widened. This data release could then be accompanied by a small event, inviting local residents and other citizens who use the route to come and explore the data, alongside civil servants and other interested individuals with relevant data skills, providing citizens with the opportunity to both learn some additional skills, and to gain additional insight to inform their opinions to respond to the engagement exercise. It would also act as a way of raising awareness of open data to communities and groups who have not previously come across it.

At a national level, running these events may be more challenging – it would be expensive and difficult to run events in all possible locations across the UK. However it shouldn’t be too onerous to go so far as to release data that have been used to inform the policy proposals, or are more broadly relevant to the consultation.

These proposals would result in open data sets that are embedded and connected more strongly to the process of helping to inform public decision making, rather than just data sets that are easy to release, or seen as desirable by individuals and organisations external to government. This can then allow more informed and honest conversations to take place, resulting in citizens who can be more effectively engaged in consultation activities, and civil servants and elected representatives having more useful and informed responses from which to build any policy proposals or service design changes.

That, to my mind, is one way open data could certainly benefit democracy.

Why voter tools may be problematic…

I’m a little unsurprised by this post I just saw on Buzzfeed about how the Daily Telegraphs Tactical Voting Tool was coded never to recommend the SNP. Not only am I not totally surprised, but I’m both a little happy and a little sad to be proven right about the use of voter apps and tools.

Before the election I became a little concerned about applications and tools that were being created by a variety of organisations that were supposed to give a floating voter an idea of how to vote in the 2015 General Election.

There is a fundamental (and incorrect) assumption underlying these tools that a parliamentary candidate should only be considered as a member of a party, rather than both as a member of a party and as an individual who will have their own pet areas of interest and qualities, but let’s ignore that and pretend that we should only be thinking about what national party policy says.

How the tools work

Many of these tools that were being created operated on a simple set of premises. A user would chose some areas of policy they were interested in, and then a variety of statements would be shown to the user without any obviously identifying information about which party had made those statements (although language used and the proposals themselves often gave that away to the more politically active), and the user would choose which statements they thought fitted most with their beliefs. An algorithm would then run over the answers provided and recommendations for how someone may wish to vote, or a bar chart/pie chart of the users similarities with political parties on various issues would pop out.

Alternatively, a user may be asked a series of questions about their priorities or beliefs, with similar outputs being provided – some form of chart or suggestions for which party their beliefs most align with.

Sometimes the bits of policy would be direct quotes from various statements and/or manifestos – albeit it shorn of any context and just a part that the tool creator had deemed ‘relevant’ – perhaps removing a sentence or two from either side that may alter how something reads, perhaps not using the paragraph that may be most directly comparable to other parties policies, or perhaps not considering that policies in seemingly unrelated areas may have an impact

And sometimes – especially with those tools that asked a series of questions – policy ideas and proposals from parties would be condensed by the tool creator into slightly different sentences and ideas than were ever originally considered.

How can bias creep in?

My concern before the election was that even with the best will in the world, any such tool will be full of biases. Be that removing specific nuance that may accidentally change what was originally meant in a policy statement, or removing the idea of how policies can and do interact (as an example the Green Party’s proposal to reduce copyright to 14 years after creation itself may be considered very difficult for many creators – but as the Green Party also propose a citizens basic income, this reduction in copyright would not itself cause destitution if both policies were brought in together).

And added to which, most organisations, including charities and NGOs, creating these tools are not politically neutral. They care about specific areas and will have either accidental or deliberate political biases that will emerge through these tools. Not only is it easy to accidentally remove nuance from a policy statement in a way that may make a political party look bad, it would also be very easy to deliberately do it – if say you wanted more people to vote for Labour than the Greens and Lib Dems – you could chose statements for the latter two parties that are less likely to be palatable to a wider audience, or summarise their policy proposals in less favorable ways.

And any questions asked will invariably contain bias. Just as one example, when I looked at 38 degrees vote match, none of the topics mentioned were my top voting issues. And the questions themselves were troublesome. For instance – one of the statements I was asked if I agree with was:

‘Government should raise new taxes to fund the NHS’

This statement is really leading. ‘Raising new taxes’ is not the same as ‘give more money to NHS’ as it is presuming the means by which more money needs to be provided. Furthermore, it also presumes the answer to any existing problems within the NHS is ‘a lack of money’, rather than for (possibly) bad internal management structures, or the wrong types of services being offered. Different technical procedures, less paper work, a decrease in homeopathy funding can all act to reduce costs for the NHS, providing an effective increase in funds – without ever ‘raising new taxes’. But the questions didn’t allow for such subtlety.

And therefore, any party which had more nuanced approaches to policy, which may need a little more explaining would be punished by this – as their idea wouldn’t fit easily into a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to this question.

I don’t expect most people to go away and read all the manifestos, and I do genuinely like the idea of tools and apps that people can play with to explore voting options. But I worry that these tools and apps can be used by organisations to push biases that less politically aware individuals may not notice.

Steps forwards

I would like to like to see those with strong interests in politics and with some understanding of social science to start more critical analysis of the biases that can be built into such tools – both in the language and framings used, as well as in the software and algorithms underpinning them. For this, it would help if the tools themselves were open source, so that the underlying code can be explored fully. Obviously, making something open source doesn’t magically make it evaluated and tested – but it is a start that enables this.

With each of these voter apps basically acting as a (potentially) poorly-designed survey, but one with the potential to influence voters and possibly alter outcomes within our election and democracy, much more critical analysis of these tools is needed.

Registering to vote

You have until the end of today (20 April) to register to vote for the 2015 General Election. Go and do it now.


To vote in UK elections, you must be over 18 and on what is called ‘the electoral register’. And even if you decide in the end not to vote on the 7 May, if you don’t register today you lose the option of doing so.

You never know what a local candidate or political party may do or say in the next few weeks. Even if you are normally politically apathetic, there is a chance someone will say something so incredible or outrageous that you feel obliged to go make a mark on polling day. Or you may just want the chance to spoil your ballot and scrawl all over your piece of paper, to stick it to the man.

But if you don’t register today you won’t get that opportunity.

I’ll be honest, it’s very unlikely your vote in the general election will do much. Even in this close election, many seats in the country are safe seats, where a party holds a significant majority.

On the 7 May, there will also be local elections – where you get to choose local councilors. And this is likely to have a much more significant impact on your local area than the national elections. If you aren’t on the electoral register, you won’t get an opportunity to vote in the local elections either.

There are all sorts of other ways you can get involved in the election if you so desire – contact your parliamentary candidates in the run up to the election to tell them about the issues that you care about, and asking them what their views are on these things. When they are busy trying to get your vote is one of the best times to convince a politician that they should care about the same things you do.

Or you could go to a hustings and meet the candidates for your area.

But all this may be far too much to think about right now, seems far too much like getting involved. And doesn’t have a deadline of just a few hours away.

So go and register now. Because you should go and mark a paper on election day – even if you just scrawl across it that the entire system is broken and politicians are all corrupt bastards. Which they aren’t. Not all of them, anyway.

And there is a lot more we can all do to be actively involved in the politics of our country, but making sure you are at least able to vote just in case you may want to in 3 weeks time is the least of those things!

So register. Now

MPs and second jobs

I’ve seen quite a lot of calls for MPs to be banned from having a second job over the last few days.

And I’m sympathetic to a lot of it, and would be strongly opposed to any parliamentary representative of mine not working hard to represent the constituency, or deal with issues they said they would work on if elected.

But what actually is a second job? If we are to ban them, we need to come up with some kind of agreed definition. And I’m not sure I know what one is.

Does an MP have a second job if they are a doctor during periods of Parliamentary recess? How about if said MP has no family/child care responsibilities and writes articles or a book during late evenings, having been in Parliament or working on either parliamentary or constituency business for 10 hours or so that day?

Does an MP have a ‘second job’ if they are a Minister? In many ways, surely this is worse than having an outside part time job that takes place during recess, as said MP is no longer able to vote against the Government party line, as well as having a (very) significant portion of their working time taken up with Government business rather than constituency business.

While there clearly are examples of MPs who take the mick – before we can talk about banning anything, we need a much clear idea of the shades of grey that might or might not be considered acceptable.